Sundance 2015: Johnny Knoxville's Evel Knievel origins

Johnny Koxville says 'Jackass' would never have been possible without Evel Knievel

The parallels between Evel Knievel and Johnny Knoxville are hard to miss, from their willingness to break bones to their talent in marketing them.

It’s one reason why Knoxville agreed to produce and star in “Being Evel,” Oscar-winner Daniel Junge’s new documentary about the iconic stuntman that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will eventually air on A&E.

But for all his devotion to the 1970s daredevil, Knoxville says there’s a key difference to the golden era of Snake River Canyon jumps and the “Jackass” antics of the 21st century.

“Everyone loved his crashes,” Knoxville said in an interview, describing how Knievel influenced the development of his own franchise. “We said, OK, let’s never make a stunt. Let’s only do crashes. And if we [don't crash], do it again.’”

“Being Evel” leans on a vast array of friends, family, admirers and detractors to trace the history of Robert Craig Knievel. It begins with his gritty-as-gravel Montana childhood and moves on to his early adulthood as a bold but little-watched motorcycle performer to his increasing media celebrity — to ultimately, his status as the godfather of extreme sports (and, more importantly, the spectacle thereof).

The psychology of a man both addicted to the threat of injury and the crowds that poured out to see if one might occur is complex. The film suggests that Knievel was animated by a mix of an ingrained childhood toughness, a need for attention  and a spirit of a challenge for its own sake, all of which led him to regularly put his life in the hands of gravity.

Knoxville believes that the knowledge so many turned out to see a spectacular crash took its toll, even if Knievel wouldn’t acknowledge it. “When you repress so much things come out sideways,” he said in the interview, a joint conversation with Junge.

Junge, who won an Oscar for the Pakistan-set attack film “Saving Face,” also deftly shows how Knievel’s boldness in the air over Las Vegas was matched by his chutzpah with the press. Realizing that few were turning out to watch him try his daredevil moves, he fomented media interest for upcoming events by impersonating a variety of reporters, then calling other outlets touting Knievel. (Just to be sure, he mispronounced his own name a few times.)

At once reverential and unvarnished, Junge’s film doesn’t shy away from the personal issues Knievel faced. The film shows the daredevil picking fights with innocent men and even threatening George Hamilton with a gun if the actor didn’t read a script aloud to him.

“It’s going to come with a rough side,” Junge said in the interview, when asked about how the professional daredevil and volatile personal life of Knievel were connected. “That’s the whole package.”

Indeed, halfway through the movie, even hardcore fans might start wondering about their affection for him (he is redeemed at the end). It’s a development that makes the movie as much as a deconstruction of fandom as a single-subject portrait. “We like Mike Tyson,” Junge said, “until he bites someone’s ear off.” (You can watch the full interview with Junge and Knoxville above.)

One challenge Knievel grappled with (apart from the dying thing) is that because the legend he was creating was inherently based on defying expectations,  he had to keep outdoing himself, like the All-Star ballplayer judged against his own stellar record.

“In creating the myth, how do you live up to it?” Hamilton describes the challenge the film. “So he was always reselling what he already sold.”

That’s an issue Knoxville grapples with too; yesterday’s outlandish stunt, after all, is today’s suburban-teen standard. But he says there’s one thing he knows he could never rival: Knievel himself

‘I’d be delusional to be competitive with Evel," Knoxville said. “I'm still the little kid, really, when it comes to Evel. There are some sides that are disappointing that I know about him now. But it’s tough to override that feeling I had when I was a little kid watching him.”

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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